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What Exactly Did Civil War Soldiers Eat?

While supplies on both sides of the Mason-Dixon were often scarce, ill-prepared, or spoiled, there is no doubt that the Union soldiers had an easier time of it. The lack of food available in the South was crippling to the Confederate troops. As cold and hungry and tired as the Union soldiers were, they did have consistent supplies and a greater variety of foods, unlike the Confederate troops. Some have even speculated that food is what helped the Union to win the war. In the end it might have all come down to rations.

What Did Civil War Soldiers Eat?

Sanitary Commission wagon. Via/ Library of Congress

Axle Grease

Looking for ways to lighten their load and increase efficiency, the War Department toyed with a new concept. Made with the first form of instant coffee, or as the Union Army called it, “extract of coffee” the troops were pleased to have something coffee-ish with them on the battlefield. When the War Department for some reason ordered no more to be bought, the troops apparently protested until the problem was rectified, perhaps facing no coffee at all. Some formulations came with milk or sugar in and some were part chicory root, but compared to water, the instant paste coffee formulation was a fine choice. It was added to hot water to make the drink.

But there was no substitute for the real thing and real coffee beans were once again rationed. The importance of coffee to the troops cannot be overstated. Coffee kept the troop’s spirits up and provided them with something warm to drink and to dunk their hardtack in.

Confederate troops had to make due with a mixture of chicory root, acorns, sweet potatoes, and/or peanuts that supposedly substituted for coffee. The blockades made it so that the rare pound of coffee that made into the South was priced almost as high coffee today!

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